John Cooney knows the mind is key to keeping on top of things
Ireland and Ulster scrumhalf accesses counsellor through Rugby Players Ireland
John Cooney in action against England during the Six Nations game against England at Twickenham. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
John Cooney has come to appreciate that incremental improvements must incorporate the mental as well as the physical in the pursuit of excellence. The key is to be receptive whether it comes through an increasing self awareness or from an outside agency.
The 21-year-old iteration of the Ulster and Ireland scrumhalf would have been largely oblivious to such a developmental pathway, fixated on the physical in becoming stronger and faster. Injuries, surgery, knockbacks in selection and a circuitous trek that started in the Leinster academy and took him to Connacht and now Ulster meant that he needed to address the mental wear and tear.
The catalyst was an injury issue. “When I was out with that right shoulder, it was my third surgery, while in Connacht I went to see a counsellor through Rugby Players Ireland (who have just released a video with Cooney as the principal for the second phase of ‘I’m Taking Control’ campaign) and they funded six sessions for me.
“That set me on this path of understanding my mind and understanding what more I can get from the mental aspect rather than always just the physical. I was adamant that hard work and being fitter and stronger than everyone was the way I was going to be the best rugby player.
“I think breaking down my personality, understanding how I tick, how I can gain more from trying to be smarter than other people or smarter in my approach made a big difference for me. I put an onus on that. We have a mindfulness corner in the house, where I can go onto the Tackle Your Feelings App or other things I want to use and take 10-15 minutes for myself; it makes a big difference.” The haven includes a Buddha, a beanbag, candles and a mirror.
He didn’t go to the counsellor of his own volition; that was his sister’s doing, along with sending him the Bob Rotella book, Golf is a Game of Confidence, several years ago. Cooney recalled: “I don’t think I was a goal-kicker at the time and that really helped me with my goal-kicking in terms of the psychology of it and she wrote me an open letter basically [saying] ‘stay in there’ and not to give up, which make a big difference to me.
“The same with my mum, she did a lot for me growing up and I sent it [the video for the campaign] to her earlier and I’d say that made her pretty upset. She would have brought me everywhere when I was young to all my football games and my rugby games. Through all those injuries and stuff it was easy for me to keep motivated thinking about the sacrifices they had made for me. That’s a huge message.
“I think people get quite selfish when they are injured and things aren’t going their way and they forget the sacrifices that other people have made for them. That made a big difference to me when I was injured.”
In keeping with most people there are good and bad days when it comes to lifestyle adjustments in the middle of a pandemic. Conditioning exercises aren’t an issue as he has a home gym but there won’t be a bird safe in the local golf course if he maintains the regimen of place-kicking into two particular trees, something that brought back childhood memories of doing the same in a local park.
Routine is a crutch on which he leans. “It’s hard not to fall into a trap of sitting around watching TV or sitting on your phone and you get to 12 o’clock and you’ve done nothing. I’ve definitely fallen into that trap a few times.
“So I try to be consistent with the time I get up at each day, whether it’s making a plan, trying to get the training I want done early. I find if I do that, I don’t feel too bad then when I sit around in the evening with idle time doing nothing really.
“On Monday, it was the least motivation I have probably had in all the weeks. I had zero motivation. I realised I was feeling sorry for myself. I know I can sometimes sound a bit intense, but I have certain videos that I watch on YouTube, one is a guy called Inky Johnson.
“He talks about the different between a hard worker and somebody who works hard; it’s easy for somebody who works hard to work harder when everything is going well for him, whereas, a hard worker no matter the circumstance, no matter the outcome, just goes into work and gets his stuff done.”
He responded positively to the disappointment of missing out on World Cup selection and would be among the players who would reasonably feel short changed given his outstanding form in the abbreviated season. “All I can do is be in the right frame of mind and be physically ready to go when this is back or we get the all-clear and be as good as I was before that; that’s my goal.”